Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Bloomsbury Group

The Bloomsbury Group was a small, informal association of artists and intellectuals who lived and worked in the Bloomsbury area of central London. Most prominent of these was novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf. In all, only about a dozen people at any one time could have called themselves members of the group. Beginning shortly before 1910, the Bloomsbury Group gathered at irregular intervals for conversation, companionship, and the refueling of creative energy. The members of Bloomsbury, or “Bloomsberries,” would more or less maintain allegiance to their mutual philosophy of an ideal society, even through a World War and three decades of tectonic shifts in the political climate. They had no codified agenda or mission. They were not political in the ordinary sense of the word. Most importantly, there was no application or initiation required to become a member. Bloomsbury was an informal hodgepodge of intellectual friends, and one either merited inclusion to that circle or one did not. No rules of order, as in a committee, governed the way in which Bloomsbury managed their interactions.

The Bloomsbury Group letters
Instead, they held impromptu dinners and gatherings where any number of topics was the subject of serious discussion and contemplation. These intellectual exchanges served as the main influence on later work by individual members. By no means were all members in full agreement on all subjects. Some of Bloomsbury’s most stimulating ideas and writings were borne out of internal disagreement and strife. One can safely say that each member of Bloomsbury was leftist in his or her politics, although as individuals they expressed their politics in very different ways.

Thrillers: The Laughing Policeman

Husband-an-wife writing team, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, collaborated on a police detective series starting in 1965 with "Roseanna", which was received to great acclaim, and going on until Wahlöö's early death in 1975. "The Laughing Policeman" is a key example, both of the style they made their own and of the working methods of their leading detective protagonist, Superintendent Martin Beck of the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm.

One wet night, the passengers on a bus are muchine-gunned down by the unknown killer and the police have to track him down with very little to go on. the public and the press assume it can only be the work of a motive-less madman but the police think there may be a sane, if dark, motive behind it. 
Structured by looking back into the past lives of the victims and building up their characters and lifestyles for clues as to why they were shot and how they all came to be on the bus in the first place, the style of the novel is carefully realistic and grips the attention. Martin Beck and his detectives are also handled in a realistic manner, and the series could be categorized as belonging to police procedural fiction, where teamwork and painstaking police routine are minutely observed. 

There is no omniscient, Holmesian work here, so the novel can be truthfully grim in its treatment of the professional setting, where the police are constantly struggling with administrative frustration and politically-created bureaucracy. This attention to the larger influences on the work of the police force makes "The Laughing Policeman" not only satisfyingly convincing, but also reflects the social conditions in Sweden at the time. 

Modern fiction: Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

"The Berlin Stories" is actually a loose confederation of two small novels, "Mr Norris Changes Trains" and "Goodbye to Berlin", both written in the 1930s. "Goodbye to Berlin" formed the basis for John Van Druten's play, "I am a Camera" which then morphed into the well-known musical "Cabaret" with the infamous Sally Bowles.

The stories were based on Christopher Isherwood's own experiences in Berlin between 1929 - 1933, the years leading up to the Second World War. As a homosexual, Isherwood found the city's reputation for sexual freedom alluring. The style is very much that of the camera, the non-participant, the observer, and although the characters are vividly painted there is a sense of alienation that permeates the whole.

"The Berlin Stories" seem to suggest that there is a difference between freedom and licence and these stories are a masterly depiction of the magic, decadence, vice and the lost souls in pre-war Germany - a world that was already in a downward spiral. In hindsight this fact seems obvious from these carefully drawn vignettes, and this is in part what makes this contemporaneous collection so compelling.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Poetry: Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869 - 1935)
"Richard Cory"

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and curse the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Science Fiction: Stranger in the Strange Land

Valentine Michael Smith (Mike) was born on Mars to two members of the first expedition from Earth. He was also the only survivor and was brought up by members of an ancient Martian civilization. Twenty Years later, he is found by the second expedition and brought back to an Earth that is to him a completely alien culture and often terrifying, with a telepathic link to the Martians so that they can study Earth and decide whether it is a threat or not.

Hidden by the government, partly for his own sake and partly because they are afraid of him, he is helped to escape by Jill Boardman, the first woman he has ever seen, and they end up taking refuge at the home of writer Jubal Harshow. After learning enough about human culture to get by, Mike decided to form his own church based on his own brand of Martian philosophy, which involves nudity, copious free love, individual responsibility and a message of peace.

There are long diatribes against ineffectual government, organized religion and many of America's contemporary values. These are, in effect, the personal views of the author, Robert A. Heinlein, and at the beginning of the 1960's were so shocking that the publisher cut the book by about 60,000 words. The unexpurgated version was published by his widow some years after his death.

Memoirs: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a multy-layered memoir written by an Iranian professor of English and American literature. The author, Azar Nafisi, was educated in the United States, and taught in Iran from 1979 until 1995.
The first strand of the narrative tells of how, after resigning from her teaching position due to its many restrictions, Nafisi conducted a clandestine literature seminar in her home each week, attended by seven of her best and brightest female students.

Through their discussions of such classic Western novels as "Lolita", "The Great Gatsby", "Daisy Miller" and "Pride and Prejudice" (all of which had to be photocopied because the books were outlawed), the young women learn about each other and themselves, and most importantly, how to exercise some degree of freedom in a totalitarian state.

In addition, Nafisi weaves her own life story around the history of Iran during the tumultuous period of the revolution, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the war with Iraq. Nafisi also reveals how her life could be inextricably linked with the books she is reading. For example, she wonders if the 19th century novels she read during her pregnancy could have affected her daughter's personality.
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